Whenever the Nets faced a major decision, Sean Marks would consult his top players — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Joe Harris. In the era of player empowerment, that’s not surprising. And one would have to assume that Ben Simmons will join that list now that Harden is gone.
But what happens when the decision involves one of those players? Is there a first among equals? Of course there is. It’s Kevin Durant. And as Jake Fischer writes in what may very well turn out to be the ultimate insiders report on the Nets-Sixers trade, KD was critical in two of the key moves of the last three months. It was he who pushed the Nets to bring back Kyrie Irving and it was he who on Thursday morning called Marks and finally said, do it. Durant’s call was the final piece.
Until then, writes Fischer, Durant had hoped it would be salvageable. But with Harden’s play indicating he wanted out — and the fear that he might bolt leaving the Nets with nothing to show for their trade for The Beard, it was time.
“Kevin was like: ‘F—k it. James isn’t bringing s—t,” another figure with knowledge of Brooklyn added. “I don’t think that would have happened without Kevin making that decision.”
For weeks he had grown weary of Harden’s purported commitment to the franchise. When Harden first took to the bench with right hamstring tightness, Durant was among the Brooklyn figures who were skeptical of the injury’s severity.
By Thursday morning, Durant dialed Nets general manager Sean Marks, sources said.
Of course, by then, Harden had told Marks and Joe Tsai that, yes, he wanted out, ending what others have called his passive-aggressive stance on staying.
At 9:30 a.m. ET, Marks who had also resisted the urge to move Harden made another call, to Daryl Morey according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne. Four hours later, Harden was headed to Philly and Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, two first round picks and two new trade exceptions were in Brooklyn’s asset drawer.
As Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported over the weekend, Durant’s issues with Harden began back in September when The Beard showed up in San Diego and as every physical therapist will tell you, out of shape basketball players are prone to, among other things, hamstring issues.
Then, Harden whose extension Marks had said was “signed, sealed and delivered,” began to talk about free agency with increasing regularity and enthusiasm.
With Irving inactive, and a greater workload heaped onto Harden and Durant, a strain formed between the Nets’ two active alphas.
“Kevin and James had a cold war going for the last several months that made everyone miserable,” one person with knowledge of the situation said.
Come December, word started to percolate around the NBA about a mounting disconnect between Harden and Durant, which was buoyed by Irving’s absence. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid was reclaiming his MVP-caliber dominance from a season ago.
Moreover, the league knew that Morey wanted Harden and indeed had been hired to bring him to Philly. His first attempt, in March of last year, failed when Harden chose Durant and Irving over Embiid and forced his way out of Houston. It was a strategy that was reminiscent of what the Nets eventually saw unfold in Brooklyn.
It was a slow, but inexorable, drama that played out, Fischer writes. At the same time, there was the Irving sub-drama. He returned but only part-time, a move that KD initiated but that Harden didn’t embrace. His dream of a ring in Brooklyn was starting to evaporate and he was averaging nearly 40 minutes a game, second in the league only to Durant. His clock was ticking.
“Kyrie not being held accountable and Kyrie being allowed to do whatever he wants. James, being his age, knows he doesn’t have any time to waste to get his first championship,” one source close to Harden told B/R.
And there was an issue, Fischer writes, about what the Nets offense should look like, with Durant and Irving favoring the wide open game Mike D’Antoni had installed in 2020 and not the iso game Harden favored.
Brooklyn coaches noticed Harden would roll his eyes when an after-timeout play was designed for Durant, sources said.
There was, according to Fischer off-court issues as well. Harden wasn’t just out of shape. He was party hearty.
After posting an emphatic 37-point triple-double on 13-of-24 shooting at the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 21, Harden left the team for Houston and a night of clubbing, B/R has learned. He rejoined the traveling party in Minnesota for a Jan. 23 game against the Timberwolves and scored just 13 points on 13 attempts.
On February 4, after a monster loss in Salt Lake without Harden, the team flew on to Denver. Harden flew to Vegas.
Harden didn’t arrive at the Jazz game until halftime, sources told B/R. When it concluded and Brooklyn continued with its planned itinerary to Denver, Harden flew to Las Vegas, sources said.
When asked to confirm the account, one person close to Harden chuckled before responding, “That sure sounds like James, doesn’t it?”
Still, Marks and Durant were hopeful that things could work out. The team’s MRI did show that Harden did have a hamstring issue. Meanwhile, in “behind the scenes” talks, Philly’s front office game-planned a trade and agreed on what they were willing to give up and what they weren’t.
Sixers personnel were adamant they would never include Tyrese Maxey or Matisse Thybulle alongside Simmons but always expressed a willingness to attach future draft capital to land a superstar partner for Embiid. They just needed the Nets to listen.
The Nets though wanted Thybulle and according to Fischer, spoke to a number of sources around the league. According to other reports, Thybulle was a point of contention deep in the conversations between Marks and Morey.
When Durant made that fateful call to Marks, the Nets front office didn’t know what Morey and the Sixers would offer. Brooklyn hoped to acquire another young piece, and the Nets gauged rival teams’ valuations of Thybulle, sources told B/R, as Brooklyn and Philadelphia hammered out the particulars of draft pick compensation that met the Nets’ asking price without including Thybulle.
Fischer also suggests that tampering could still be an issue and while the NBA let the Bulls and Heat off the hook earlier in the season with the loss of second round picks, the range of sanctions is broad: up to $10 million fines for teams, the suspension of executives, the revocation of first round picks, even the voiding of contracts.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia Tuesday, Harden said that the 76ers were his first choice all along. Whatever. He also admitted that in today’s NBA, it’s the superstars who rule the day.
“We can control our own destiny. I needed to be around guys that I know want to win and are willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
- Inside Kevin Durant’s Role in Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden Trade - Jake Fischer - Bleacher Report